By Ricardo Arduengo and Kate Chappell
POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron said violence in Guadeloupe over COVID-19 restrictions had created a “very explosive” situation, as a general strike entered a second week on Monday and many stores remained shuttered after nighttime looting.
Hours before Macron’s prime minister and lawmakers from the Caribbean archipelago were to hold crisis talks in Paris, there were signs of protests spreading to Martinique, another French overseas territory 190 km (120 miles) south of Guadeloupe.
Compulsory vaccination has touched a nerve in a population that is descended from slaves who worked on French sugar plantations and that during the 20th century was systematically exposed to toxic pesticides used in banana plantations.
“We are descendants of slaves, and for us, control over our bodies is really important,” said Pamela Obertan, 40, a political scientist in Guadeloupe who helped organize protests against vaccine requirements. “The government wants to impose a medical experiment. We are still medical experiments.”
Agriculture workers in Guadeloupe and Martinique were for decades exposed to a chemical pesticide called chlordecone. Macron has called it an “environmental scandal”, French media reported in 2018.
The toxic exposure has since then been linked to unusually high rates of prostate cancer on both islands.
Guadeloupe health workers had since July been protesting coronavirus vaccines mandates and writing letters to government officials without getting a response, said Obertan. By Nov. 15, some could no longer work because they had refused the vaccine.
Guadeloupe’s main city, Pointe-a-Pitre, was quiet on Monday, with burned out cars and debris still littering streets. Some shops remained shuttered, and schools closed due to the unrest.
Obertan said she and others had led peaceful protests, and did not support the acts of violence that had taken place.
France has deployed 200 extra police officers, including elite police commandos, to Guadeloupe to quell the unrest.
“We must explain, explain, explain and convince, convince, convince, because one must not play around with the peoples’ health,” Macron told reporters in northern France.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Monday described the situation in Guadeloupe as “worrying” and called for calm while also urging solidarity with the island’s people.
Local police have arrested several dozen people and food stores and pharmacies have been looted. French media reported on Sunday that rioters had broken into an arms depot in Pointe-a-Pitre and taken rifles.
“We just don’t know how far this will still go,” the mayor of Pointe-a-Pitre told France Info radio. He said there were “big worries” on the island now because rioters had guns.
In Martinique, roads around some of the main commercial and industrial zones were blocked by trucks at sunrise as unionised workers responded to a strike call, local media reported.
(Reporting by Ricardo Arduengo in Point-a-Pitre, Kate Chappell in Kingston, Tassilo Hummel and Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Christian Lowe, Giles Elgood and Toby Chopra)